Myanmar's election campaign began on Tuesday with Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains widely admired and respected at home despite her tarnished image abroad, hoping for a landslide win to further cement her status as the country’s civilian leader.
The Nobel laureate’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept to power in 2015 – the first national polls since the Southeast Asian nation emerged from decades of junta rule.
Despite the coronavirus threat, campaigns are, for now, underway – albeit with accessories.
Wearing a red face mask, plastic visor and rubber gloves, Suu Kyi on Tuesday morning raised the NLD flag – with its fighting peacock symbol – at the party’s office in the capital, Naypyidaw.
“We want our victory to be the country’s victory,” she said, thanking supporters for flying the NLD colours across the nation.
A tide of red NLD paraphernalia has swept across Yangon with printing shops in recent weeks in overdrive to produce stickers, T-shirts and masks.
“I don’t think about policies or candidates. I love Mother Suu and I like what she does for our country,” 61-year-old street vendor Myint Myint Htay said.
But the military is still hugely powerful in a country governed under a constitution written by the former junta.
The armed forces control three key ministries and 25 per cent of parliamentary seats – effectively giving them a veto on legislation.
Last month, Suu Kyi reminded the country on Facebook why her party needed every vote: “We can’t just get more than 50 per cent of elected seats like in a normal democracy.”
Suu Kyi – once hailed as a democracy icon – has seen her international standing plummet in recent years over allegations that Myanmar committed genocide against its Rohingya Muslim community.
Her decision to travel to the UN’s top court to defend military operations against the minority was widely condemned in the West but stoked nationalistic pride at home.
NLD fervour still rages across much of the majority-Bamar heartlands, but a flagging peace process in a nation wrought with conflict – as well as a perception the NLD acts only for the dominant Bamar group – means a likely boon for ethnic minority parties.
The ruling party’s principal foe, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), sees this as an opening.
USDP leader Than Htay said: “I’m trying to build understanding with ethnic parties.”
Also out in force in Yangon on Tuesday were the blue-clad People’s Pioneer Party (PPP), led by businesswoman Thet Thet Khine, ousted from the NLD last year and proclaiming a “middle way” between Suu Kyi’s party and the military.
But the coronavirus pandemic could still upend the vote with case numbers quadrupling in the last three weeks – even if they remain relatively low at just 1,610 with eight deaths so far.
Campaign events are limited to a maximum of 50 people.
Many are even calling for the election to be postponed, but Suu Kyi would be loath to delay, said Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey.
She has led the nation’s fight against the pandemic and delaying would be a “sign she’s not winning the battle”.
If her hand is forced, a postponement of more than two months would theoretically cause a constitutional crisis and even the invocation of a state of emergency.
But Horsey predicted the government and military would reach a consensus to head off any political fallout.
Many observers expect the vote to be cancelled in the worst conflict areas, including northern Rakhine state – likely fuelling further discontent.
Rakhine was also where the military drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in 2017 – operations that now see Myanmar facing genocide charges.
The disenfranchisement of refugees and most of the 600,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar – stripped of citizenship and rights – raises “fundamental doubts” about the election’s credibility, warned Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch.